Uncanny Valley: Rationalizing the Author’s Appearance

The play ends, but the performer who earlier introduced himself as the writer Thomas Melle just keeps sitting in his armchair, one leg casually rolled over. Under halting applause, two technicians enter the stage and cordon the sparse set with a shimmering red belt. The barrier allures the audience. Slowly, people rise from their chairs and come closer, inspired by the barrier, to study the performer’s appearance more closely. Thomas Melle persists patiently. Only now and then he blinks his eyes clumsily, as if this were a momentaneous escape from the curious crowd. But Melle does not have to evade himself. He did not experience any of the events that happened on this stage within the last hour, even though he appeared to be uncannily present, even empathetic. Even though his wandering gaze kept hooking on individual faces in the first row. Even though he attentively observed the reactions of the audience, patiently addressed its unease in his monologue, always understanding, never apologetic. Now, as if the crowd lacked this very empathy, it enjoys the gawp by the barrier. Some film the distorted backside of Melle’s head with their smartphones. 

During the performance, the audience has learned plenty of personal details of the writer. Thomas Melle has a bipolar disorder. He dislikes publicly reading his latest novel Die Welt im Rücken which deals with the illness. He is tired of posing for TV features and book fair panel talks. It exhausts him to present a self that is staggering even for its bearer. But, as the audience can testify, Thomas Melle has nevertheless allowed the theatre collective Rimini Protokoll to put him on stage again in order to tell another poetically precise version of his story. The audience has learned that Melle even likes to perform here. Earlier in the evening, the face of a second Thomas Melle was projected onto a small screen right next to the first Thomas Melle. In a video message, this other Melle explained why something was fundamentally different with this project. He explained that in the head of the person sitting in the armchair, no anarchic psyche rages, but a functioning program works. The performer is a prototype, an actual robot, not even an artificial intelligence, therefore most predictable. His monologue runs even when the writer is somewhere else. When he cannot present himself to the public, perhaps because a temporary mania forces him to change the subject after three focused sentences, perhaps simply because he rather is in the mood for a sauna visit, the clone suggests ironically.

Melle celebrates having found a reliable hack with which he can solve the difficulties of psychiatric auto-fiction for the poetization of one’s own mental illness comes with complications. In autobiographical writing, the confusion of author and narrator is not only common, one could even say that audiences and publishing houses’ PR departments alike let it pass contently. The extra-literary appearances of the author, on Wikipedia and in talk shows, turn into guilty references. This strains different paradigms of narrative theory, which differentiate between author and work. But to keep the additional information strictly out of it would be simulated reality jackstraws, meaning the playful proof that one still could sort out different strings of reality. Therefore, Melle must be confused, but the ritualization of this process in the mediatized literature business is hard work. While his written auto-fiction is reproduced in a print shop and can circulate freely as a book, Melle has to personally generate the precious author-fiction again and again whenever he has a reading or talk to attend. This is hard work even for people who do not have bipolar disorder. Melle and the theatremakers of Rimini Protokoll offer an alternative model: the literal rationalization of the author’s stage appearance. 

The title-giving term Uncanny Valley was coined by the roboticist Masahiro Mori. He used it to describe the discomfort that people feel when dolls or robots look lifelike. At least that’s what the Melle robot claims from his armchair. As one can perceive in the video projection, first the face of Melle’s biological body was molded with silicone for this prototype, then his hair was brutally embroidered on the artificial head skin, afterwards the entire fleshy shell was stretched over a high-tech frame filled with cables and electrics, then camouflaged in writer’s camouflage, dark, sincere clothing, the only accent being the white shirt collar framed by the V-neck of a pullover. Although the stageelle was created as lifelike as possible, this robot looks anything but scary. Even when he turns his foot 360 degrees around his ankle to set something like a dramaturgical point, it seems uncannily close. This is partly due to the retro-futuristic kind of humor, using the obvious, even touching difference between fine-motor human beings and clumsy representing machine which will probably only last until technology has definitely dissolved this border. The audience, so to say, stands on a perfectly secured viewing platform above Uncanny Valley and – of course! – takes pictures. The crowd is tellingly certain that the robot is not Thomas Melle. 

The spectators come much closer to Melle precisely because he can stay away from the stage thanks to his representative. Here, no false authenticity of his soul research gets staged, rather this false authenticity is acknowledged, worked and overcome. But this variety of closeness through absence would be impossible if Melle’s text for this piece was not of a farsighted empathy which anticipates what the unknown recipient might experience. For a writer, this is an ancient and classic situation, because books, too, resemble prostheses that extend the radius of speech into the unknown. The uncanny side in the play Uncanny Valley is not the physical similarity of the robot to a human being, but the similarity of this seemingly brand-new form of technical self-representation to traditional techniques of mediation between people who do not meet each other. Literature is one such technique.

Another uncanny thing about these techniques has always been that the author can only guess how the words sent into the unknown, whether through the display of an e-reader or the silicone lips of a robot, will be perceived by the later recipients. That an audience can only ever come to speculations about how it really feels to go on a reading tour with one’s medical history. That it will always remain a mystery how it really was to experience Uncanny Valley.

[Link to the trailer of the piece]

Lena Schubert
Uncanny Valley
Haus der Berliner Festspiele
Link to trailer: https://vimeo.com/289579135
Concept, text, direction: Stefan Kaegi
Text, body, voice: Thomas Melle
Equipment: Evi Bauer
Animatronic: Chriscreatures Filmeffects GmbH
Fabrication & Art Finish of the silicon head / colours and hair: Tommy Opatz
Direction: Martin Valdés-Stauber
Video-Design: Mikko Gaestel
Music: Nicolas Neecke
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